Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son brings us into the presence of absolute forgiveness. We toss around the idea of “unconditional love” as if it were not a dangerous thing. We love the notion of forgiveness…but only to a point. After all, there is finally a right and a wrong.
Jesus’ story of forgiveness is mostly misunderstood because his understanding of forgiveness is not hooked to “right” and “wrong.” When we forgive someone, that act says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of what they did or failed to do. It is flatly a re-assertion of relationship despite anything that threatens it. It is love, no matter what.
We often imagine that if we forgive someone, we are conferring some benefit or blessing upon them. And after what they have done to us, we are not about to confer upon them anything but hatred and recrimination.
The forgiveness that Jesus speaks of, the forgiveness imagined by sages and prophets in every faith tradition, is simply a letting go. Despite the fact that you have been wronged, despite the fact that the evidence in the case is clear—you let it go. In doing so, a benefit and blessing is indeed conferred upon someone: you. As Anne LaMott says so piquantly, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
How can we take this in without fainting dead away: to be happy, to be fully alive, we must forgive even those who will not ask our forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we condone what they did, but we forgive so that we don’t have to swallow the poison. In his book, Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey tells this story. Part of it you know…
After 27 years in prison, [Nelson] Mandela emerged and was elected president of South Africa. He actually invited his jailor to join him on the inauguration platform. Early in his presidency he appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel entitled the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for the crime. This approach was highly controversial, but Tutu kept insisting that the country needed healing rather than eye-for-an-eye justice.
At one hearing a policeman named Van de Broek recounted an incident when he and other officers had shot an 18-year-old boy and burned the body in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, Van de Broek returned to the same house to seize the boy’s father. The man’s wife was forced to watch as the policeman bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body and ignited it with a match.
After the man recounted his crimes, the judge turned straight to the elderly woman who had lost her husband and her son to this atrocity, and asked, ‘What do you want from Mr. Van de Broek?’
You can imagine the hush in the courtroom as the elderly woman rose to speak.
She said she wanted Van de Broek to go the place where they had burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust, so she could give him a decent burial.
Van de Broek, his head bowed, nodded his agreement.
Then she added a further request. “Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me,” she said, looking at him, “but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month I would like for him to come to the township and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know that my forgiveness is real.” Spontaneously, all those in the courtroom began singing together Amazing Grace. But Van de Broek did not hear the hymn. He had fainted dead away.